This seems to be the last interview Jon Pertwee gave before his death in 1996.
You became well known for comedy. Was this a direction you had always wanted to go in?
No, not at all. I started off at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts and I was thrown out after being told I had absolutely no future in the theatre at all. Charles Lawton, the famous actor, said “I understand you were thrown out of RADA.” I said ‘yes’ and he said “you’re bound to do well, so was I”. When war broke out, I was in the Navy for six years and I finished up running the naval broadcasting section. Through that I met up with Eric Barker who was a top class, top rated comedian. He was in the Navy and he had a radio show called Medeterrainian Merry-Go-Round. I went along to check on the work he was doing because he was being a bit rude about my Lords of the Admiralty. I was sitting there and he wanted someone to shout something out from the audience – which I did. And he said “that was very good. I enjoyed that. Can you come back next week.” And I was with him then for five years.
You were well known for comedy before Doctor Who, why did you decide to play him so straight?
Well, the reason for that is that I had just come from comedy and I wanted to prove to myself and others that I could do things other than comedy. I had done eccentric comics in theatres and pictures, I did the hideous Carry On series. I did quite a few of those. I wanted to prove that I could be a successful actor by playing straight. I played it straight. Right down the middle for five years.
There seemed to be hints of a relationship between the Doctor and Jo. Was that something intentional or something that other people, namely me, have read into it?
That’s something your reading into it. Oh no, no, not Doctor Who. He fond in a grandfatherly way and you couldn’t help being fond of the companions, they were such pretty little people. There was no sign of romance. The only romance ever really shown is, I gather, in the new film with the new Doctor, Paul McGann. There was no sexual interest. It would be a rather unfortunate match if consider the fact that he’s over two hundred years old and she was a twenty three year-old girl.
As the series developped there was a shift away from Earth based stories towards more fantastical stories. Were you pleased by that change?
Yes, I wanted… but remember though that no matter what one says one’s input into Doctor Who was virtually nil. You didn’t have time for any input because I’d be working on a show that had been worked on by producers, set desginers, etc. for maybe five months before and so one couldn’t have any input into each show. The only chance you got of having any input into Doctor Who was for about ten minutes on the first day of rehearsals.
While you were playing The Doctor the relationships between the central characters became a lot less antagonistic? Was that something you brought to it or was that something the producers wanted to develop?
That was because I am a tremendous believer in teams. Anything that I have ever done successfully as always been as part of a team. From the director downwards we were a very tight team. The Navy Lark was rioteously successful because we were a very tight nit team. I, when I did Doctor Who, wanted to make him into a kind of science fiction James Bond because I’m an adventuresome twit. I like motorbikes and I used to race cars and I race speed boats – I liked incorporating this into the show and my producer Barry Letts mercifully let me. It was a good idea. It was a different approach to it.
While you were working on Doctor Who there were a couple of projects that you were involved in which never came to fruitition. There was a script that you wrote called The Spare Part People. Could you tell us something about that?
All I can tell you is keep your eyes open because it’s coming up again, I think, in book form. I’m not going to go into it too deeply because it’s always bad luck. It’s not dead by means. It was something that I wrote with another actor. I showed it to Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks and they said “oh, yeah, wow, great, terrific” and I said ‘are you pleased with it?’ And they said “yeah, but we’re not going to do it. It would be far too expensive.” I don’t think it would actually. I think they went off on the wrong tack with it. I think it will work as a book. I hope so. It’s being written by Jonathan Ray and I.
Apparently you decided against appearing as the Doctor in a film version while you were playing the Doctor on TV, why?
Never heard of it. God knows where you got that story. They write extroardinary things in these magazines. If you read about all the things that were said when Doctor Who was going to be made into a film in Britain from about ten years ago and all the people that were supposed to be playing it. I have been playing it four times – Doctor Who in this new film. A woman from The Evening News rang me up and said “congratulations.” I said ‘on what?’ “You’re playing Doctor Who in the new film” she said. And I said ‘am I? Thanks so much for telling me.’ And she said “don’t you know anything about it?” And I said ‘I’ve never heard of it. Actually the fellow from Monty Python, Eric Idle, is playing it’. She said “oh, no he’s not”. And I said ‘yes, he is. It was in the papers yesterday.’ And she said “I’ve rung him up today and he says he’s never heard of it.” You don’t want to believe what you read in the fanzines.
What did you enjoy most about Doctor Who?
I enjoyed the filming because it’s active and I like being out in the fresh air, but it’s very, very hard work. It’s an immensely difficult series to do. You have to spout pages of scientific claptrap which one didn’t understand at all. It was only the writers that knew what the hell the thing was all about. You couldn’t understand it unless you were a sci-fi buff and I wasnít – I was a working actor. I had a lot of fun in it. I liked the teams.
Why did you decide to leave?
I decided to leave because Roger had died, Barry Letts was leaving, Terrance Dicks was leaving. I thought it looked like the end of an era and I thought, well, I may as well go. Sean Sutton, the head of programmes, said “would you like to stay on and do another season?” And I said ‘yeah, yeah, I’ll do one more if you pay me a bit of extra money.’ He said “like what?” I told him and they said “we’re sorry to see you go.”
What attracted you to Worzel Gummidge?
Any actor would just jump at it. It was the most magical part. It ran the gamut of emotions from A to Z in twenty four minutes. I managed to add one little quality to it which made it take off better than it would of done. Doctor Who always travelled in his Tardis and never stayed in one place for too long and I tried to think how we could get around that with Worzel Gummidge and we decided on the changing heads. All he had to do if he wanted to be a singer was put on a singing head and if he wanted to be intelligent he would put on a thinking head and a handsome head for his love life. That worked like a dream.
The first episode of Worzel Gummidge seemed a lot more sinister than the later episodes…
You’re absolutely right. The first one is always the hardest for the writers and the actors and everybody. You don’t know, really, which way to go. We over did it to begin with – it was too scarey. Lots of children were screaming at that scene were the water melts the mud of his face and he comes off the post and comes lumbering down the field. That frightened the shit out hundreds of children, which was rather a mistake. From that moment on we softened up. When he came into contact with the two kids he sort of softened up and the whole thing became more gentle.
Do you think Worzel was a more interesting character than Doctor Who?
Vastly, vastly, because, as I say, he ran so many emotions. He was a very irascible chap and at the same time he was endearing. There’s nothing better than having somebody who’s villainous and wicked and evil and yet being loved. It was like Aunt Sally. There was Una Stubbs playing the worst bitch who’s ever been on television. She was horrid, she was rude, she was beastly to Worzel who loved her dearly. Yet the public adored Aunt Sally. This is the great secret – if you can do that you’ve cracked it. You could let Worzel do what he bloody well liked. When I went to big functions where there would be Hells Angels, because I was often went to motorcycle rallies, and I thought ‘oh my God. I’m going to have a lot of trouble here with a load of hairy, leather coated Hells Angels.’ I couldn’t have been more wrong. They where endearing in the extreme and they where saying “Hello, Worzel. How you doing, mate? How’s Aunt Sally, then? Give her one for me.” I realised, with amazement, they where watching the programme and they knew all the characters and so on.
Like Doctor Who, Worzel had an adult following. Do you think that was part of the reason it lasted so long?
Of course. It was a childrens’ story to begin with, as Doctor Who was. It was supposed to be for children, but they quickly realised that it was for the whole family. Sci-fi audiences are vast all over the world – that’s why it’s so popular in America, everywhere, Australia and so on. Worzel was originally purely a childrens’ show and we where on at a childrens’ time on a Saturday. Literally within a week or two we where a cult and we had enormous viewing figures and we realisied about sixty five percent of our viewers where adults. There they stayed and we got more and more and more. When I did personal appearances as Worzel we got an enormous turn out of people and it wasn’t just children.
Are there still plans to produce an animated version of Worzel Gummidge?
Yes, we have a TV company who are prepared to play it. All we are doing now is negociating to try and get the money to make it. It’s immensely expensive. Animation is very expensive and so we are now touting for the money to get the programme properly made. We’re about halfway through it and I think it will come up alright.
You where in Doctor Who – The Ghosts Of N Space on Radio 2 recently. Where you disappointed by the huge delay in transmitting it?
Of course, one is disappointed by the delay in transmitting anything at the BBC. That’s the extraordinary thing. If that was in America and they realised the success of it and the enormous number of listeners that they had for the first one… and the sales were enormous. The first one we did, The Paradise Of Death, that was in the top ten. They told me that when I flew back from Spain. There where all these reporters and they said “do you know your in the top ten?” I said ‘what with, I haven’t made a pop record.’ They said “this isn’t with a pop record. This is with your Doctor Who tape. It’s been so enormously successful, they’ve sold so many that it has had to go into the charts.” So you would think the BBC would grab that and say ‘right, we’re going to make three more this year.’ I mean it’s just sitting up and begging to be a series, but no, no, no. It took months to get The Paradise Of Death on the air. Then they cocked up the repeat and played episode four twice. Then it was very successful and they said “yes we’re going to do another one.” But it took them nine months before they even agreed to make it.
You’ve got the second part of your autobiography coming out in November…
Well, it’s not really. It was supposed to be. I wanted to do it that way, but it’s worked out as being a Doctor Who book interspersed with things about me and my life. This is because the man who is writing it with me is very orientated towards Doctor Who – he has written lots of other Doctor Who books – his name is David Howe. I’m correcting it at the moment. It is not written in the style that you would say was my style, it’s more a collaboration between an expert biographer and me.
Are you happy to still be remembered for Doctor Who and Worzel Gummidge?
Well, I can hardly be otherwise because I have never stopped working. I was doing things on television last month, I was doing things on radio last month, all of which are connected in a way because itís BBC science week. They think of science and they think of me.